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COMPUTERS ADD MEASURE OF FUN

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Ryan Millecam says using a WICAT learning system in adding fractions is easier and more fun that using a math workbook.

With the computer, Millecam, 10, a student at Orem's Geneva Elementary School, can push the "help" button to get hints when he comes across a perplexing problem - something no workbook can do. And the computer can tell Millecam when he gets the right answer as well as when he needs to try again."When I get it right, it makes me feel a little bit smarter," Millecam said.

"It is one of my favorite parts of the day."

He may be in only the fifth grade, but Millecam already knows where his future lies: computers. "Almost every job has a computer in it, and when I grow up I want to get a job in computers at WordPerfect like my dad," he said.

Welcome to elementary school, 1990s style, where computers are playing an increasingly vital role in providing individualized, interactive instruction and are preparing children to live in a technologically dependent society.

Computers are being used to teach children everything from how to count money and speak French to how to design a floor plan for a dream home. In the near future, schools may have computers linked to laser disc players and television monitors that take children on tours of well-known art museums to see the works of famous artists, to visit the Grand Canyon for a discussion about sedimentary rocks, and teach them to do an Irish jig by watching someone else perform it; then the computer will quiz them about what they have just seen. A wrong answer prompts the monitor to provide a visual review of the information in question.

"I think we have within our reach now the technology available to help teachers teach in a way they haven't been able to in the past," said Brian Page, assistant superintendent for instructional services in the Alpine School District. "The computer gives immediate feedback. It is infinitely patient, a good tool."

Utah schools use various computer systems and software. One of those, the WICAT learning system, which had only two or three labs in public schools a little more than two years ago, now has almost 50 learning labs in Utah schools. The Ogden District has moved most quickly to use the system, with 19 schools having learning labs.

"There is really no question any more that this kind of technology makes a difference," said Ken Sorber, WICAT sales representative. Computers can provide the one-on-one interaction and accountability of student progress that is impossible for a teacher to manage in Utah's overcrowded classrooms. Today, the systems are being used mainly for math, the area in which Utah students fall below the norm on standardized tests, but future applications are endless.

"Ten years ago, computers were used strictly for drill and practice," Sorber said. "Now, they are being used to develop higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. The systems will become more automated, providing testing and prescriptions (for student weaknesses) on line."

But one thing computers can't provide is the human touch - the kind of caring and interest in students for which great teachers are noted.

"This is not a panacea for education," Sorber said. "It is a tool that allows teachers to reach more students."

While computers may be the educational tool of the future, they are an expensive tool. It would cost $4.2 million to equip each of the Alpine School District's 42 schools with a 32-station WICAT learning lab, plus an additional $500,000 per year for maintenance and software.

"For most schools in the past a computer meant have a bake sale and go out and buy a computer," Sorber said. "This is a more serious use of technology. The real goal is to teach students to learn to think, and the core purpose of education is reading, math and language arts. That is where we see computers making the biggest contribution."

With one such lab per school, approximately half of the students in each school would be able to spend a half hour per day using the system at the elementary level.

"For a long time, people have said money isn't the solution to the problems in education. But in Utah, money really is the problem," Page said.

Page said computer companies may help Utah schools make the transition to educational technology: IBM has drafted a proposal asking the state of Utah to invest $20 million per year for three years to equip each school in Utah with a computer lab. In return, the company will orchestrate massive price reductions on equipment worth about $200 million from various computer companies that participate in the project. The Legislature will consider the proposal in January.

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Crunching the numbers

At Millcreek Youth Center in Ogden, students in a math class were split at random into two groups. Their pretest scores were nearly identical. Half of the class received traditional math instruction. The other half received instruction supplemented by time on a WICAT learning system.

Post-test scores eight months later showed that the group receiving traditional instruction made a 2.7 month gain for every month of instruction. The group spending time with the WICAT learning system made a 4.7 month gain for every month of instruction.

At Orem's Geneva Elementary School, students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades have spent a half hour a day in the WICAT learning lab. After using the lab for 40 days last year, students in the fifth grade made a 22 percent improvement in their math scores. The school is watching closely to determine what effect a full year with the system has.